Comment The initial rush to join the government's ID card scheme appears to have eased, with applications from people in the Northwest running at an average of as little as 14.5 per working day.
In a Commons answer yesterday, ID minister Meg Hillier said that as of March 3 there have been 4,307 applications for identity cards from people living in the northwest of England, including Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria.
Back in January, Hillier told the commons that there had been 3,800 applications/appointments as of January 18. Her answer almost coincided with one from Home Secretary Alan Johnson, who said that 3,700 applications had been registered as of January 16, suggesting a mid-January surge of applications running at 100 a day.
At that point the scheme was only being piloted in Manchester, though non-Mancs were free to register their interest in the scheme. An earlier answer had said that as of January 14, 1,300 Mancunians had applied "and attended an enrollment appointment".
The figures disclosed yesterday refer to a wider area and, excluding all the applications made prior to January 18, suggest a run rate as low as 14.5 applications (not appointments) per working day since then in the Northwest.
There was no explanation for the apparent drop in interest. Perhaps the easing of January's big chill means people have other things to be getting on with. Maybe people have given up biometrics for Lent. Or perhaps the earlier figures were boosted by journalists and other oddballs trying to be the first in the UK to get an ID card.
Of course, since January the scheme has also been extended to youngsters in London - perhaps the Commons will hear about the surge in applications from booze-hungry Cockneys sometime soon. Perhaps an Eastenders story line could boost interest.
Assuming the figures do show a drop in applications, it was no surprise that Johnson appeared to be soft-pedalling on plans to roll out "biometric enrolment centres" for the scheme.
Asked by his shadow Chris Grayling whether his Department has plans to open new biometric enrolment centres, Johnson said the Border Agency has an option to roll out post office scanning stations in the 2010-2011 financial year, but "no decision has yet been taken on whether to take up this option".
He added: "The Identity and Passport Service's (IPS) current planning assumptions allow for the provision of biometric enrolment centres during 2012. These will be delivered both through IPS offices as in-house services, and also by third party concession arrangements with one or more partners."
In the meantime, "the system currently in use by IPS for identity card enrolment for British citizens will continue to be incrementally rolled out, taking account of public demand and how we can achieve maximum benefit for the UK and its residents".
A go-slow on enrolment centres might not necessarily mean the government is getting cold feet about its ID scheme, or endeavouring not to leave a possible incoming Tory government with a network of offices for a scheme Grayling has pledged to scrap.
Rather, with an election coming up it is probably keeping a lid on costs where it can. ®